BANDUNG, Indonesia (AP) — Rescuers were searching Wednesday for dozens of asylum seekers still believed missing after their boat sank in Indonesian waters on the way to Australia. More than 150 survivors were brought to safety and three bodies were recovered.
The incident comes days after Prime Minister Kevin Rudd changed Australia’s refugee policy so that people who arrive by boat will no longer be allowed to settle there. The move was a response to domestic political pressure and a string of accidents involving rickety boats packed with asylum seekers bound for Australia.
Local police spokesman Col. Martinus Sitompul said 157 people have been recovered from the boat that sank Tuesday night about 5 kilometers (3 miles) off the coast of West Java’s Cianjur district.
Among the survivors was a pregnant Sri Lankan woman who was being treated at a health center in the town of Cidaun. A baby boy, a 10-year-old girl and a woman were identified as the dead, he added.
Sitompul said the group was believed to consist of around 204 migrants from Sri Lanka, Iran and Iraq. They departed Tuesday morning from Jayanti, a coastal town in Cianjur, using a smaller boat that was supposed to meet a larger ship at sea to complete the journey to Australia.
Their overloaded boat, built to carry only 150 passengers, sank about nine hours into the trip due to a leak. Some of the migrants scrambled for the lifeboat, while others swam before being rescued, he said citing Iraqi survivor Ali Akbar.
A search for the 44 migrants believed missing continued Wednesday with police, fishermen and local villagers scouring the waters.
Rochmali, a rescuer at the scene who goes by one name, said the exact number missing remains unclear since some survivors may have fled to avoid authorities.
The asylum seeker issue has been a longstanding dilemma for both Indonesia and Australia.
Last week, Indonesia decided to stop issuing visas on arrival to Iranians because a growing number of them have been caught smuggling drugs or using Indonesia as a transit point for seeking asylum in Australia.
As of last Friday, Australia said all newly arrived refugees would be resettled on the island nation of Papua New Guinea, though their claims for asylum will still be assessed in Australia and at detention camps in Papua New Guinea and the tiny island nation of Nauru.
Australia will help genuine refugees settle in Papua New Guinea. Others can return to their home nations or a third country other than Australia.
The move, condemned by refugee and human rights advocates, is an attempt to stem the flood of asylum seekers who travel to Australia from ports in Indonesia and Malaysia. Hundreds have died attempting the journey in recent years.
Indonesia is a popular exit point because its capital, Jakarta, lies just 500 kilometers (310 miles) from Australia’s Christmas Island. More than 15,000 asylum seekers have arrived in Australia by boat this year.
Rudd said the latest boat incident highlights the need for the policy shift.
“Too many innocent people have been lost at sea,” he told reporters in Melbourne on Wednesday.
“The asylum seeker policy we’ve adopted is about sending a very clear message to people smugglers that if you try to come to Australia by boat you will not be settled in Australia. … That is all about destroying the people smugglers’ business model,” Rudd added.
Associated Press writers Niniek Karmini and Ali Kotarumalos in Jakarta, Indonesia and Kristen Gelineau in Sydney contributed to this report.